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It’s Not The Media’s Fault That DeSantis Isn’t Doing Well
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It’s Not The Media’s Fault That DeSantis Isn’t Doing Well

Well, mostly.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Today we begin with a Rorschach test. What’s your reaction to this passage from Politico about Florida Rep. Greg Steube endorsing Donald Trump over Ron DeSantis?

Steube … told Playbook in a brief interview last night that DeSantis has never once reached out to him during his five years in Congress nor replied to his multiple attempts to connect. He recalled a recent news conference dealing with damage from Hurricane Ian where the governor’s aides initially invited him to stand alongside DeSantis, only to tell him that he wouldn’t be part of the event when he showed up.

Trump, on the other hand, was the first person Steube remembers calling him in the ICU to wish him well after he was injured in a January tree-trimming accident. “To this day I have not heard from Gov. DeSantis,” he said.

A certain type of political junkie reads that and thinks, “That’s malpractice by DeSantis.” They’re correct. We’ve been warned repeatedly in coverage of the governor that he’s not a “people person” but it’s one thing to be introverted and another to fail miserably at basic politics. DeSantis is trying to improve, apparently, but one person in his orbit told the Washington Post that he rarely musters warmth even with staff and allies. Being a socially awkward weirdo is fine if, perchance, your job is writing a daily newsletter for The Dispatch. But in someone who harbors national political ambitions, it’s a potential career-killer.

A second type of political junkie reads the details of how Steube’s endorsement came to be and thinks, “That’s clever by Trump.” They’re right, too. Trump’s team spent weeks quietly lining up support from members of Florida’s House caucus, then began rolling out their endorsements shortly before DeSantis traveled to Washington to pitch himself to Republican lawmakers. One congressman from Texas, Lance Gooden, met with him there—and immediately endorsed Trump afterward. The carefully choreographed timing was designed to “embarrass and mindf**k” the governor, TrumpWorld crowed to Rolling Stone. Mission accomplished.

A third type of political junkie, namely me, reads the Politico passage with rage at the thought that a public servant might prefer a twice-impeached once-indicted coup-plotter as president to DeSantis because the governor has poor social skills. “DeSantis is a bad retail politician, ergo I must support a proto-fascist insurrectionist” does not follow logically. Every Republican who endorses Trump this cycle has made a joke of their oath to defend the Constitution, and there are already quite a few of them. Never forget their names. 

There’s a fourth type of political junkie, though, who reads the passage above and grumbles to themselves not about DeSantis or Trump or even Steube but about Politico. “Why is the media highlighting DeSantis’ humiliation?” this person wonders. “They want Trump to win, don’t they?”

There will be a lot—a lot—of this nonsense in anti-anti-Trump circles if DeSantis’ presidential candidacy flames out.

Let’s nip it in the bud early.

In fairness to the governor’s apologists, there are some reasons to suspect the press might prefer to have President Autogolpe back on the Republican ballot.

We’ve all seen the bar graph of how cable news covered the 2016 GOP primary. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” network chief Les Moonves infamously said of Trump’s candidacy at the time. Love him or hate him, Trump delivers ratings. One couldn’t help but shudder a few weeks ago when outlets like CNN and MSNBC briefly reverted to 2016 form, providing extensive coverage of his plane en route to New York for his arraignment in Manhattan. 

Our left-leaning media might also prefer to see Trump renominated on the theory that he’ll be easier for Democrats to beat in a general election. Hillary Clinton’s campaign reportedly pined for the chance to face him in 2016. Joe Biden said last year that he’d be “very fortunate” to have Trump as an opponent again in 2024. Under Trump’s leadership the GOP lost the House, the Senate, and the presidency, all before January 6 and his recent indictment. At last check he was rocking a 25 percent favorable rating. Of course the press wants to see him advance to the general election next year.

That’s what anti-anti-Trumpers tell themselves, at least.

Ron DeSantis isn’t polling in the “high 30s.” Now and again he’ll touch that number in an individual survey but the highest he’s been in the RealClearPolitics average is 31.3 percent. That came in late January, when Trump sat at 44.3 percent. Three months later, Trump is at 52.3 percent while DeSantis has sunk to 23.6 percent.

From Trump +13 to Trump +28.7. Even DeSantis’ best state poll has seen a 12-point lead in New Hampshire for the governor in January erode to a 20-point deficit now.

I’m sorry to inform you that it’s not the media’s fault.

DeSantis has had a rough spring objectively, as my colleagues at The Morning Dispatch explained earlier. Some of it is his fault, some of it is Trump’s fault, some of it is out of his hands. The biggest factor in his decline, I suspect, is the recent “rally ‘round the accused felon” dynamic on the right. For instance, in January CBS found 35 percent of Republicans willing to say that loyalty to Trump is “very important” but following his indictment in New York 46 percent said so. Recent data suggests that the Trump “crime bounce” might finally have begun to fade, but it is—or was—very real.

Trump has also been shrewd in his campaign tactics against DeSantis. It’s not just the Steube-led endorsement parade described earlier, it’s his decision to make the governor’s pre-Trump radicalism on reforming entitlements a key point of the campaign. DeSantis’ delayed launch gave Trump an opportunity to define him in the eyes of primary voters as a Paul Ryan ancien regime Republican before DeSantis was able to define himself, and Trump has seized it with both hands. Credit where credit is due.

DeSantis, meanwhile, has done himself no favors. He mimicked Trump on Ukraine, then reversed course when traditional conservatives in his base complained. He’s been touring the country while part of his state is underwater and other parts are experiencing fuel shortages. He continues to double down on his vendetta against Disney, leaving his enemies and even some allies accusing him of having lost the plot politically. “We’re not the party of cancel culture. We can’t keep doing this tit for tat,” one Republican state legislator in Florida complained to Politico about DeSantis’ latest revenge play.

Joe Biden once famously described Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign pitch as “a noun, a verb, and 9/11.” At his worst on the stump, DeSantis’ pitch can sound like a noun, a verb, and “woke.”

All of this might be unimportant if polls consistently corroborated the governor’s claim that he’s the most electable candidate in the race. They don’t. A few surveys support his thesis, but by and large Trump is polling head-to-head against Biden about as well as DeSantis is, if not better. Democrats have even begun to wonder if DeSantis’ insistence on moving ever further right, particularly on abortion, might make him a weaker opponent in a general election than Trump.

Worst of all, DeSantis has been conspicuously shy thus far about making his case against Trump forthrightly. Perhaps that’ll change once he’s a candidate officially, but to date the closest he’s gotten to a harsh critique of the former guy is mentioning in passing that the criminal indictment in Manhattan had to do with Trump paying off a porn star. And DeSantis said that in the course of criticizing the indictment.

Put all of it together and the governor’s dream of clearing the field of other challengers and maneuvering Trump into a one-on-one race appears to be up in smoke. A strong pre-launch to his campaign might have convinced the Pences and Haleys that there was no room for them in what’s essentially a two-man field, leading them to drop out. DeSantis failed.

It’s not the media’s fault. In fact, I’m skeptical that most reporters are rooting for a Trump nomination this time.

A few days ago Jonathan Chait made the case in New York magazine that “liberals should hope DeSantis beats Trump.” In 2016 Chait argued initially that the left should prefer Trump as the Republican nominee before thinking better of it; this time, believing DeSantis would be easier to beat and possibly less dangerous as chief executive, he’s concluded that Democrats should want to see the new guy prevail. I suspect most members of the mainstream media would agree. After all, the incentives in promoting Trump have changed for the industry since 2016.

Back then it seemed fanciful that the host of The Apprentice might win the Republican nomination, let alone be elected president. He was a celebrity oaf, wildly out of sync with the small-government dogmatism of Tea Party Republicans. He had no chance. And even if he did, there was surely a limit to how much harm he might do in office once he was surrounded by grown-ups. The presidency would normalize him. So what was the downside in humoring him with tons of free coverage during the primary while his doomed candidacy proceeded toward its inevitable end?

No one thinks that way anymore. All illusions about what a second Trump term team might mean for the country were smashed along with the Capitol’s windows on January 6. 

I can’t tell you for sure that the media won’t ultimately prioritize their own ratings in how they cover Trump. Les Moonves didn’t get where he was by being naive about the nature of his business, after all. I concede that there’s a bit of a feeding frenzy at the moment about DeSantis’ early struggles, although that’s mostly because the press can’t resist a pat “not ready for primetime” narrative about a hyped presidential contender. I’ll even admit that, on a visceral level, members of the press might enjoy watching Trump punch DeSantis in the face. We Never Trumpers certainly do, even those like me who are resolved to supporting the governor in the primary. It’s not because we want Trump to win, it’s because DeSantis and his cronies are illiberal bullies in their own right and it’s enjoyable to see a bully get wedgied, albeit at the hands of a bigger bully.

So, no, I can’t guarantee that the press will cover this primary more responsibly than they covered the last one, although I’m reasonably confident that they will. What I can tell you is that right-wingers who are blaming the media for Trump’s advantage over DeSantis have an agenda.

Yair Rosenberg knows what it is.

Traditionally conservative DeSantis fans want to blame the mainstream press for their guy’s underperformance because it spares them from holding their own side accountable. Scapegoating the New York Times is easy; facing the fact that the GOP base might prefer a coup-plotting insurrectionist to a sharp governor who’s granted their every populist wish on policy is hard. Dwell on that fact too long and you might find yourself entertaining the partisan heresy that the modern Republican Party isn’t fit to govern, or at least isn’t as fit as the Democratic Party is.

Imagine being Ben Shapiro, quietly preferring Ron DeSantis, and realizing that most of your readers at The Daily Wire want to stick with a vulgar authoritarian who’s cost the party three election cycles and counting. You can use your platform to try to convince them that they’re wrong and behaving irresponsibly, but that’s a risky proposition financially. The last time Fox News was faced with a choice like that, they preferred to pay $787.5 million rather than level with their audience.

You can try to persuade them that Trump is to blame for DeSantis’ misfortunes, but that’s risky too inasmuch as it would also put you on the wrong side of the readership. Your fans might let you get away with supporting DeSantis over Trump as a point of personal preference but if you start tearing down their hero you’re inviting a Newsmax-style dam break in market share. 

You’re left with no choice but to do what anti-anti-Trumpers always do, blaming some entity that’s already regarded as an ideological enemy and which it’s therefore politically safe to blame. If DeSantis loses, it’s not Trump’s fault and it’s certainly not the deplorable Republican base’s fault. It’s the media’s fault.

Your fans will happily indulge you in some media-bashing, even in a case where they’re aligned with the media (allegedly) in wanting to see Donald Trump prevail in the primary.

Rosenberg goes on to note, correctly, that in any other situation it would be comical to think of Republican voters taking their cues from the mainstream press on which candidate to support in a primary. The opposite is closer to the truth. Were the New York Times to endorse Trump over DeSantis, the response on the right uniformly would be, “This helps DeSantis!”

It was meaningfully different in 2016, I think, because Trump was a wild card at the time. The endless, breathless cable-news coverage of his campaign may have persuaded some Republican voters who were otherwise inclined to treat him as a circus act to take him seriously. Remember, among the party establishment, only Jeff Sessions deigned to endorse him early on. Rarely did Trump top 40 percent in the initial primaries. Legitimizing him was a process.

After four years as president, he doesn’t need big media to validate him as a serious candidate anymore. Especially considering how the conservative media ecosystem has grown in size and influence since 2016.

On that note, to our anti-anti-Trump friends I would simply say this: If you must blame the media for not doing more to promote DeSantis over Trump, at least focus your ire on the correct media niche. Right-wing populist outlets, not their liberal mainstream counterparts, are chiefly to blame for Trump’s ongoing viability.

It’s not the mainstream media that’s spent eight years defending every instance of Trump corruption. It’s not the mainstream media that continues to treat him as worthy of a second term after he tried to overthrow the government. And it’s not the mainstream media that regards criminal charges being filed against him as a point in favor of renominating him.

Offhand I can’t think of one populist conservative media outlet (except, I suppose, the New York Post) that’s argued repeatedly for moving on from Trump in 2024. Maybe—maybe!—if Fox News and the Daily Wire and Breitbart and The Blaze and the rest of the gang spoke with one voice clearly and consistently in favor of nominating DeSantis, that might move some voters. Certainly, the Daily Wire endorsement would matter more to the average Republican than the New York Times endorsement would.

But it wouldn’t matter much. My guess is that it would move some Trump-loving readers to cancel their subscriptions before it moved votes into DeSantis’ column. This, again, is the lesson of the Fox/Dominion saga: Cultish populists can’t be persuaded, they can only be placated. A business that caters to them won’t survive if it doesn’t understand that.
A party that would choose Trump again is a party objectively not worth supporting, particularly if it would pass over an attractive alternative to do so. That hard reality is what Republican partisans who support DeSantis can’t tolerate, but they should force themselves. Let the so-called party of personal responsibility take responsibility for its own choices for once. If we are doomed to have this rotten outfit nominate a rotten human being a third time, I wish only that we endure the process with our eyes entirely open as to culpability. The media didn’t ask for Trump 3.0, nor did the Democratic Party. We asked for this.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.